Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilitySXSW 2024 Review: Ghostlight
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Ghostlight (IFC Films)
Ghostlight (IFC Films)
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SXSW 2024 Review: Ghostlight

When we meet the Mueller family, it is clear that things are out of sorts. The father, Dan (Keith Kupferer), is a construction worker that is distracted and constantly stuffing down his emotions, the daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), is behaviorally acting out and on the brink of expulsion from school and the mother, Sharon (Tara Mallen), is afloat trying to hold it all together. It’s a trio of grief responses, as the Mueller’s have encountered an unfathomable loss in the family. One day after an incident on the job, Dan finds himself stumbling upon a community theater rehearsal of “Romeo and Juliet” and dives into uncomfortable waters as an actor in the fantastic “Ghostlight.”

Directed by: Kelly O’Sullivan (debut) and Alex Thompson (“Saint Frances”)
Written by: Kelly O’Sullivan (“Saint Frances”)
Starring: Keith Kupferer, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Tara Mallen

The first striking thing about “Ghostlight” is its authenticity surrounding the complicated nature of grief, showing three separate, personal responses to the same loss. These themes are further punctuated by a trio of fantastic performances. The Mueller family is played by a real life father, mother and daughter, allowing for a level of inherent chemistry that is palpable on screen. Husband and wife director duo Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson are also able to carve out a balanced tone with O’Sullivan’s screenplay making room for bits of levity to keep from a persistent, punishingly sad tone.

While it’s initially very clear that “Ghostlight” is a portrait of grief, much of the details are initially kept close to the vest. It makes perfect narrative sense, especially by illustrating Dan’s inability to talk about what happened, leaving many of those closest to him in the dark about what he’s thinking, feeling and experiencing. It allows the elder Kupferer to play the character with brilliant complexity, melancholy in one moment and bursting into rage the next. Beyond the obvious emotional range, Kupferer is masterful in character design, treating Dan as confused and conflicted, encapsulating the push and pull with taking himself to the edge of his comfort zone in a host of different ways.

As the film heads into the final act, however, the details are revealed in a decision that makes sense with the story, but feels a little too on the nose for a film that had previously been a masterclass in subtlety. Even with those obvious notes, it doesn’t undercut the powerful emotional catharsis of the final act of the film as Dan must put on his big performance and in working to understand the characters in the play, finally confront his loss head-on.

As funny, warm and powerful as it is sad, “Ghostlight” is an absolute triumph for filmmakers O’Sullivan and Thompson buoyed by a stunning performance from theater actor Keith Kupferer. As a meditation on the complex nature of grief, and the importance of family and social support in going through life’s most difficult moments, “Ghostlight” also serves as a wonderful example and representation of its own message of the healing power of art.

Grade: B+